Joanie Cunningham. Jan Brady. Doug Pitt. Brendan Minogue. The also-rans of the entertainment world. If you could pop them into a time machine and whisk them back to 19th-century Arizona, they’d probably find a friend in Morgan Earp.
I’m sure at least some of you will recognise the name ‘Earp’. It’s usually preceded by ‘Wyatt’ or by the rapid consumption of beer. Wyatt Earp was a famous lawman in the Wild West, immortalised in movies such as 1994’s Wyatt Earp and its predecessors Tombstone and the classic My Darling Clementine. But unless you were paying very close attention to the Hollywood versions of Wyatt’s life (and let’s face it, who was?), the name Morgan Earp probably won’t ring any bells. Because Like Joanie, Jan, Doug and Brendan, Morgan Earp suffered the fate of being Someone Famous’s Younger Sibling (He also suffered the fate of being shot in the kidney, but we’ll get to that later).
Born in Iowa on April 24, 1851, Morgan Earp had no shortage of brothers and sisters. He was younger brother to Newton, James, Virgil, Martha and Wyatt, and older to Warren, Virginia and Adelia. The queue for the bathroom in the Earp house was longer than the Earp house itself.
If there’s one thing the Earp family liked to do besides growing spectacularly boisterous moustaches, it was stick together. Where one Earp travelled, the others would generally follow. Morgan followed his brothers from Montana to Kansas to Arizona and a few stops in between, working as a security guard on coaches and trains, staking claims in silver mines and dabbling in law enforcement.
By the time 1881 rocked around, Morgan had joined his brothers Wyatt and Virgil Tombstone, Arizona, where they policed the town and had enough facial hair between them to strangle a medium-sized pony*.
The lawmaker brothers had their work cut out for them, trying to keep a local saunter of outlaw cowboys** from terrorising Cochise County. The Earps didn’t like the Cowboys because they rustled cattle and held up stagecoaches and smelt funny. The Cowboys didn’t like the Earps because they came from the poshlands up north and didn’t know much about livestock and wouldn’t let them shoot people at random. Tensions between the goodies and the baddies increased until something had to give. Then, surprising everybody, something gave.
Three pm. Wednesday, October 26, 1881. The gunfight at the OK Corral***. Earps on one side, Cowboys on the other. BANG! BANG! BANG! PECHUNGGGG! Thirty seconds later, it was all over. Morgan and his brother Virgil sustained minor injuries; three Cowboys lay dead. The remaining bandits fled unhurt but annoyed. No moustaches were harmed.
This is where, usually, the movie credits would roll, leaving the audience to wonder what became of the Earps (particularly that handsome one) and of the bad guys who escaped, and whether there would be a sequel, and whether Val Kilmer would be in it. But this was not a movie. This was real life, about which several movies were made.
The angry Cowboys returned to Tombstone five months later to find Morgan Earp playing billiards in a local parlour which, conveniently for the Cowboys, had a glass door. Two shots were fired through the door from the alley outside. One bullet hit Morgan on his left side, passed through the bit known in medical circles as “his middle” and emerged on the right side near his gall bladder. The fourth-youngest and most-hunkiest Earp was done for, and he knew it, exclaiming, “This is the last game of pool I’ll ever play”.**** An hour later he was dead, aged 30.
An inquest into the death of Morgan Earp produced inadequate evidence to convict the culprits. After this disappointment, big brother Wyatt (who by this time employed a manservant to carry the weight of his lip-whiskers) swore revenge, and raised a posse of vigilantes to hunt down the murderers. They managed to find and kill four suspects, but never returned to Tombstone.
**DO NOT STRANGLE PONIES.
**The collective noun for cowboys is a ‘saunter’. I looked it up. Why not use it in a sentence today? Just slip it in casually the next time the topic of cowboys comes up at work or playgroup or whatever.
***”The gunfight at the OK Corral” actually happened in an empty lot a few doors down from the OK Corral’s back fence. Hence, it is referred to by historical pedants as “The gunfight quite near the OK Corral but down a bit and to the left”.
**** I must have uttered this sentence 100 times during my “attendance” at university. I never meant it.